Leader Blues

Friday, February 01, 2008

SPORTS>>Young warriors

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

Ray Rodgers says it’s the toughest sport there is. It also has a “unique mystique,” he says, that gets its hooks in you and doesn’t let go.

Rodgers would know. The owner of Ray’s Golden Gloves Gym in Little Rock has been in the fight business for going on 60 years.

“It has a natural attraction to kids that are basically adventuresome and want to do something no one else does,” says Rodgers, who has served as Jermain Taylor’s cut man throughout Taylor’s professional boxing career. “That’s a lot of it. The dynamics of it hooked me in the fifth grade and I’ve never ever been out of it one day in 60 years.”

For Sean Winkle of Cabot, the dynamic of the sport couldn’t be more straightforward.

“I get to hit people for free,” says Winkle, who along with Kyle Sturgeon of Cabot, and Myles Taylor of Lonoke, is in Kansas City this weekend for the Silver Gloves national tournament. “And if I go pro, I’ll get paid for it. It’s the only sport I’m in anymore. I dropped football and baseball for it.”

Winkle’s enthusiasm is not dampened by any trepidation, despite the fact he’s only been boxing for nine weeks. His coach, Walter Woods, says Winkle took some early beatings in sparring matches at Ray’s Gym, but never flinched.

“Some kids get hurt that first time sparring and won’t come back,” says Woods, who has trained boxers at Ray’s for five years. “Sean showed determination.”

Winkle, at 165 pounds, is fighting in the middleweight division, while Sturgeon (195) is competing in the heavyweight, and Taylor (247) in the super heavyweight. All three are 15 years old. All three had to win the Silver Gloves state as well as regional competition to reach nationals.

Taylor is back for the second straight year at nationals, while Sturgeon has reached his first after falling in the regionals last year to the man who eventually won it all.

“I was sick last year and a little out of shape,” says Taylor, a freshman post man on Lonoke’s top-notch varsity basketball team who likes his chances of winning it all this year. “I can pull it off. I’ve been working too hard for this. I’m going to pull it off this time.”

The kid who beat Taylor last year has moved up to the 16-year-old division. But Taylor isn’t looking at it as a case of not having to face him as much as not getting a shot at a rematch — one the confident Taylor seems certain he’d win.
“Yeah, I want another shot at him,” he says with a laugh. “I’d knock him out right now. I’m an inch-and-a-half taller and I have a lot better jab.”

It was a big week for Taylor, whose Jackrabbits hosted a critical conference game with Newport.
“I’m real pumped,” he said prior to the Newport game.

Asked which he’d rather win — that game or the Silver Gloves nationals — Taylor refused to choose.
“Both of them,” he said. “We’re going to do both.”

The first half of that prediction came true as Lonoke dispatched Newport on Tuesday. Taylor figures that, like Sturgeon, he’ll have to win two, probably three matches between Thursday and today to earn the title.

Sturgeon drew a bye to the nationals after winning the state heavyweight title. His father, Keith, who along with Woods trains Kyle, says it’s tough to find many fights for his son.

“His age and his size, there’s just not many kids out there,” he says. “But he’s been sparring with a heavyweight [at Ray Rodgers gym], a guy who’s an open fighter, and it’s been a good experience.”
Kyle Sturgeon, who has been boxing for two years, agreed ... to a point.

“You learn a lot more sparring these guys,” Sturgeon says. “But it’s way different than being in a real match. You’re a lot more nervous in the ring with a lot of people watching.”

Woods, who has been training Kyle since October, has noticed plenty of improvement over the past three months.
“We push him real hard and he’s real dedicated,” Woods says. “He’s a bit heavy-handed at times and needs to relax and let the punches go.”

Rodgers is most impressed by Sturgeon’s “bulldogged determination.” Though he is short for a heavyweight, Rodgers says, he has been able to overcome that by fighting close and smothering punches.

“He fought a kid over at Hot Springs last week that was bigger than him and Kyle just got on him like ugly on an ape,” Rodgers says. “The kid just wilted and quit. If you drop water on a rock long enough, you can wear it away. “That’s what Kyle brings to the table. He just keeps coming and coming and coming.”

Of Winkle, Rodgers says: “He’s new at this, but let me tell you something: He took to boxing like a duck takes to water. When you show him something, he tries to execute it immediately and works hard to perfect it. He won’t take second best.”

Woods calls Winkle a gifted athlete who caught on fast, adding that he has a strong right hand and a good punch for a 15 year old.

Woods hasn’t had a chance to work much with Taylor because of basketball, but thinks that with his height and reach, he can win fights with jabs alone.

Rodgers says Taylor needs to be in the gym a little more after basketball season, but that he seems fully committed to winning the nationals this week.

“In boxing, as in life and everything else, desire’s half the deal,” Rodgers says. “Myles is in good condition for running up and down the basketball court. But boxing demands a little different exertion because of the rapid recovery you have to have.”

All three fighters share the same goal: To make the 2012 Olympic team. To do that, they must accumulate points along the way in Silver Gloves, Golden Gloves and the Junior Olympics. That will get them a ranking and hopefully a chance to qualify for the Olympic Games.

Whether any of them reach that goal or not, Rodgers thinks the experience and lessons along the way will prove invaluable.

“I’m a great believer in amateur boxing,” he says. “I think it’s one of the greatest sports ever devised. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: In boxing, you don’t have anybody to hand off to or to lateral or pass it to. You’re on your own, brother.

“The only discipline that lasts is self-discipline,” he adds. “You can stand a kid in a corner and whip their butt with a paddle. But once they learn self-discipline and the desire to de better in this ring, that sticks with them all their lives.”